Notes from a sermon preached on 08.03.09
Peter and John & the Empty Tomb
It doesn’t surprise me at all that when Mary found the stone in front of the tomb rolled away that she ran back to Peter and John. It was still dark. Who knows what was going on? If they’d learnt nothing else from the last few days, it was surely that they couldn’t trust anyone. Not the Romans. Not their priests. Not even their friends… Peter, John, someone’s been in the tomb and has stolen our Jesus away…
Peter has always been one to rush in before thinking, and he’s not one to change his ways! Straight away both he and John leg it for the tomb to see what’s going on. John gets there first. He’s the more sensible one, more cautious. He looks in from outside, but won’t go in alone. Peering into the darkness, he makes out strips of linen lying on the ground. Peter doesn’t have the same sense as John, and pushes straight past, bundling into the darkness, not thinking about what or who could be within. Fortunately for Peter, there are no grave robbers or crooks in here, only the strips that John could see, and lying to one side of them, folded, the cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. Nothing else was in there, alive or dead. Just as Mary had said, Jesus had been taken, snatched from his resting place. Finally John plucks up the courage to go in. Now he can see for himself he believes…
I often wondered what that verse meant, ‘He saw and believed’, especially when its followed by a note saying that they still didn’t understand that the Scriptures said he would rise from the dead. The logical answer is that they believed what Mary had told them, that Jesus had been stolen by someone – robbers perhaps, certainly not unknown (that’s why graves were sealed) or perhaps the authorities as one final kick in the teeth aimed at the rebellious King of the Jews.
At the same time though, there’s a hint of a puzzle here, something more than at first meets the eye. The grave clothes are obviously important to John as he writes this many years later. Why does he take the time to describe them so much? What his he trying to say here? What is so significant about them lying separately, the burial head cloth that had been around Jesus’ head folded so neatly?
Why does John not simply say that they believed Mary, if that’s what he meant? Clearly they didn’t run into the grave and suddenly believe in Jesus’ resurrection – I think what they did next would be really quite different if they had done. But by using this loaded word ‘believe’ without further clarification, maybe John is leaving it deliberately vague, hinting again that there’s something going on here, more than meets the eye.
Mary in the Garden
Peter and John head back home. There’s nothing more they can do here. Whoever had disturbed the tomb had gone, and after they had backed the insurrectionist Jesus, they could hardly go to the authorities and complain about the snatching of his body could they! But Mary stays in the garden outside the tomb, crying.
Let me let you into a secret. Kate and I are ‘Desperate Housewives’ fans… There, said it. For those who don’t know there series, it’s about the goings on in a suburban street, Wisteria Avenue, in the US. On the surface, it’s simply and enjoyable soap, following the lives of the glamorous and dysfunctional families that live there. There’s more to it than that though. It’s really an expose, an examination of why we live and behave the way that we do. One of the antagonists in the series is Dave Williams who at first seems a totally sorted kind of guy. But after a while we see him doing all sorts of concerning and strange things – transpires his wife and child were killed in a car crash and he can’t let go…
Mary isn’t able to just let go like Peter and John. Jesus might be gone, but she can’t just go home as if nothing had happened. Seeing him executed was bad enough, but there was no way she could accept that on top of that someone had gone and stolen him. She stands outside weeping, from time to time glancing into the tomb in a kind of denial – perhaps if I look again, it might turn out that he’s there after all. Perhaps Peter and John missed him in the gloom…
All of a sudden there are two figures in the glom, dressed in white, sitting where the body should have been. ‘Woman, why are you crying?’ ‘They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they’ve put him’, she replies.
What do you make of this? It’s an odd exchange, strangely matter of fact. Usually if you spot an angel, you fall to the ground in fear! All that Mary does here is answer in a matter of fact way. Nothing is said about her being surprised, or scared, or puzzled. Then as she turns around, she sees another figure in the gardener. Again, ‘why are you crying?’ The same answer – they’ve taken my Lord away. Are you the gardener – perhaps you know where they’ve taken him!’
Perhaps it’s simply that her grief is so overwhelming, that she is unable to see beyond it.
When the gardener speaks again, the world changes forever. ‘Mary’
‘Rabboni! Teacher!’ It’s Jesus!
What is it that Jesus had said about himself a few chapters ago? ‘[The shepherd] calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.’ John 10:3-4
Words aren’t really needed at this point. Simply hearing her name in this way was enough. There’s something so wonderful about the Risen Jesus not launching into a speech, declaring his greatness, or laying out some new manifesto or plan. Instead he just says her name. The most important thing to him is his relationship with her. Here is a friend comforting a companion in need. He knows here and he knows what she needs…
There’s something new here as well. I can’t believe that Mary didn’t recognize him. Yes there were tears in her eyes, and she wouldn’t have been expecting to see him there, but he was the one she was crying for. He was the one she was holding on to.
Jesus is not the Jesus they buried in the tomb. He hasn’t just revived, come back to life and stepped out. Something is radically different. Mary doesn’t recognise him, later he miraculously appears in a locked room, not once but twice. He may have a body, but it’s not like ours, and it’s not like his was. This is something new, something that hasn’t been seen before. Why do you think he needs to show the disciples and then Thomas his wounds – these are the proof that he is who he says he is – clearly they’re not totally convinced otherwise.
It doesn’t say as much, but it takes no imagination to see Mary throwing herself at Jesus, embracing him, holding him, clutching on to him – after all, wouldn’t you?
Jesus then says something that has always puzzled me. (17) ‘Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’’ What do you make of that?
Was Jesus worried about the physical effects of her touching him – either for her or for him – just as God wouldn’t let Moses see his face for fear that to do so would be too much? Or is he saying that she needed clutch on to him – he wasn’t going to return to his Father just yet, there would be more times they would meet yet, so she needed hold on to him in case he was snatched away again? I certainly think this makes sense. I also wonder if there’s an element here of him telling her to let go of the Jesus he was, the Jesus that had died on the Cross, to let go of what had been and to grasp instead the new. Don’t look back, look forward. Everything is new! He is not dead, but is returning to his Father! Don’t stay in the tomb, but come out into the garden!
Life in His Name!
John ends this chapter by explaining why he had written his gospel, ‘these [miracles] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.’ (31)
Just as he called Mary out from the Tomb into the Garden, so to he calls us by name, calling us out of death into life. Jesus has risen and life is no longer the same. Live this life in light of the Risen Jesus.
Sometimes I think we’ve made a mistake by talking about The Cross too much. Yes its short hand for Jesus’ death and resurrection, for all that he’s accomplished for us, but the fact that we use a phrase that talks of death to summarise it, The Cross, blinds us to where the story ends, with something new, resurrection.
• We live in our past mistakes
• We live in lives governed by the world around us
• We are content with what is rather than what could be
• We live caught up in the way we were conditioned to see ourselves
• We live locked in for fear of what might happen to us
And yet as he did to Mary, Jesus calls us from the Garden – come out of the tomb, come out of death and chose something new. Choose life. We don’t need to stay bound by these things. They don’t belong to us anymore. Jesus has called us by name and set us free! Believe (it’s that word again) and life is yours for the living.